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Tajikistan: Media Groups Say Three Journalists Forcibly Conscripted

Military officials in Tajikistan stand accused of forcibly conscripting into the army three journalists for producing a television program critical of the army. Local and international media watchdog groups have condemned the conscriptions and are working to free the men, apparently now being held at a military base in the city of Khujand. It's not clear how officials in Dushanbe see the incident.

Prague, 8 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Local and international media-advocacy organizations are criticizing what they say is the forced conscription into the Tajik Army of three journalists for writing a television show that was critical of the army.

On 28 October, four officers from the military commissariat in the northern city of Khujand forced their way into the building of the SM-1 and TRK-Asia independent television stations.

They arrested nine journalists in all. Six were later released, but three men, Akram Azizov, 21; Nasim Rahimov, 20; and Yusuf Yunusov, 21, were reportedly taken to the Khujand military base.

Nuriddin Qarshiboev, the head of the National Association of Media in Tajikistan (Nansmit), said the army's methods are inconsistent with democracy. "We consider the incident to be an insult to freedom of speech, and we sent our statement to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the media," Qarshiboev said.

Oynihol Bobonazarova, an adviser to the OSCE office in Dushanbe, characterized the action as illegal. "They don't have the right to enter the building of an independent television station without special permission. They entered without any permission. If they want to forcibly enter a building, they must have an order from the prosecutor," Bobonazarova said.

The nine had participated in a journalism workshop organized by the U.S.-based media-training group Internews. Just days before the conscriptions, SM-1 broadcast a show the nine had produced criticizing a practice known as press-ganging, or forcibly drafting young people into the army.

Fazliddin Domonov, the head of the military services in Khujand, was interviewed for the program. He denied the army was illegally drafting young people and was reportedly infuriated after seeing the show.

Internews country director Roshan Khadivi told RFE/RL that according to Tajik law, officials in Khujand had no right to draft the three because they are not from a Khujand city. "Based on Tajik laws, you have to be drafted from the area -- from the military [service office] - that you were born in. So there should be a regional attempt to draft them into military service. Also based on Tajik laws, at least two weeks are given for such a draft. They have to send you a letter explaining that you have been invited for a medical examination," Khadivi said.

The military says the conscriptions are legal since each organization is required to inform the local authorities each month about who is eligible for the draft. The television stations apparently did not do this.

Khadivi said she believes the men were targeted by Domonov, who she says called the station after the program was aired and threatened to draft everyone there. "It seems like a retaliation. And what was kind of unique about the whole process was that right after the production and broadcast of the television show, the top military officer [Domonov] called the station threatening that he would draft everyone," Khadivi said.

In the wake of the incident, SM-1's station director, Mahmoudjan Dadabaev, said he has received threatening telephone calls from military officers.

The Paris-based watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, today condemned the threats and denounced the conscriptions of the three journalists. In a letter to President Imomali Rakhmonov, the group called for the men's release.

Khadivi said Internews also hopes soon to win the journalists' release. "We hope that by getting the central government -- the Dushanbe officials -- involved in this matter, that this matter will be resolved quickly. To us it shows that these decisions were [made] by a few individuals within the local government bodies in [the] north of the country. And we really hope that the president will be informed, get involved, and free these journalists," Khadivi said.

Alex Lupis, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, told RFE/RL it is not clear yet at what level the decision was made to draft the journalists. He said the government has not yet taken a firm stand to release the men. "What is clear is that President Rakhmonov has not taken a firm stand and has not responded promptly to address these problems. So we're very concerned that the government, which claims to support press freedom, is not taking prompt steps to have these journalists released and basically investigate and prosecute these officers," Lupis said.

Lupis said he thinks the incident may reinforce a negative trend toward self-censorship in Tajikistan because it reinforces the message that journalists are vulnerable and face retaliation for their reporting. "If you're talking about press freedom in Tajikistan, self-censorship is the main issue because journalists have learned that when they do push the boundaries, very often the retaliation is so strong...that they've gone to the point where very many of them won't test where those boundaries are," Lupis said.

Earlier this year, observers welcomed the government's decision to grant a license to independent radio Asia-Plus as an improvement in the media environment. Some see this as a reversal of that positive trend.

But Lupis said this is in line with government policy of trying to improve the country's image in the West while at the same time seeking to limit domestic debate.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)